Waste Diversion and Prevention

When it comes to food waste diversion from landfills, the landscape is changing dramatically, primarily due to state and municipal regulations, according to Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath. We caught up with Shakman to hear his thoughts about how operators are engaging in waste diversion — and waste prevention too.

FE&S: What is the difference between waste diversion and waste prevention?

AS: The diversion conversation is an important one, but it cannot stand alone. Most of the diversion measurements out there have a major flaw in that they focus on percentage diverted to landfill rather than on totality of waste prevented. A full discussion about waste stream performance management needs to include prevention (the size of the pie) as well as the diversion percentage (the angle of each slice of the pie going to landfill, recycling, or composting/energy). Prevention is often overlooked because it isn't as tangible as other items on the waste management hierarchy.

FE&S: Why is waste diversion important?

AS: Waste diversion has both environmental and economic incentives. From a greenhouse gas–reduction perspective, waste diversion is important, and there are increasing opportunities to use wasted feedstock, for instance, in composting and energy production. From a business standpoint, waste diversion also presents a cost savings opportunity for operators. With food consisting of 70 percent water, it's heavy, and companies must pay a fair amount to discard it.

In many areas these days, composting has become a lower-cost solution. For example, in Seattle, composting is cheaper than landfill pickup because it's partially subsidized.

FE&S: What role does measurement play when it comes to tracking waste diversion and prevention?

AS: Measurement is often mistaken as a communication tool and not fully appreciated for its ability to raise awareness and provide detailed diagnostic information to drive change. The behavioral science impacts of measurement are at least as valuable as the diagnostic benefits. Waste is a critical control point, illustrating the efficiency of an operation and pointing the way to improvement opportunities.

Not all measurement is created equal. There is a big difference between auditing (a one-time event) and tracking (ongoing). The longer you record data, the better the understanding of the problem. By continuously tracking data, you also have the ability to spot backsliding before it becomes a significant issue. Also, when you measure, you have the ability to just capture aggregate data, but you should dig deeper to find more actionable information. This means also gathering characterization data (what was discarded), context (why is it discarded), and condition, which photos illustrate most effectively.

The act of measuring is a change mechanism. When you ask people to record data, in some ways you're changing your culture and showing your staff and customers that your efforts matter.

FE&S: How do you measure waste diversion and prevention?

AS: The crudest way to measure waste prevention is to look at reports from the waste management company, but that information might not be collected or analyzed accurately.

If operators want more accurate information, they will have to play a role in collecting it for themselves and not just rely on their waste stream partners. We recommend operators measure their pre- and/or post-consumer waste every day.

FE&S: That said, how can operators start measuring their own waste on a more detailed level?

AS: Operators can start by figuring out which type of data is most meaningful for them to track. It's also critical to establish a baseline by spending a week weighing everything — including food and nonfood items — and then recording the data in either Excel or other software. There might also be a way to plug into an existing reporting structure, such as a green restaurant certification program already being used or a recycling contest already implemented at a college, for example.

The EPA also has a tracking tool through its WasteWise program that's been extended to food recovery. This is a useful tool for "zooming out" and analyzing progress on a more macro level over a number of months or years. Once you have a baseline established, it's easier to see progress compared to that number.

Newer versions of some software programs now offer pictures to go with each item being thrown away which upload wirelessly to the cloud and are available via a web browser for immediate, detailed reporting. The software also generates alerts and emails whenever certain goals are met or if staff members are doing something wrong.

When operators take charge of measuring their waste, they have the ability to start shaping their culture and behavior. With photos, the cliché is true — a picture is worth a thousand words; you can see what's been thrown away, and you can visually assess the condition of your waste-reduction efforts. You can also see if certain foods or trimmings that were wasted could have been repurposed. Photos give people more than just gross data but also characterization, condition and image data.

FE&S: How is legislation impacting waste diversion and prevention efforts by operators and other companies?

AS: We now have seen legislation in Vermont; Massachusetts; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and the Seattle area, all of which are taking steps to either ban food waste completely from landfills or at least requiring some sort of composting alternative.

The EPA is continuing to look at food waste as an area that needs increased attention, and this is something that will start to affect operators in many more jurisdictions than the ones mentioned.

FE&S: Does tracking postconsumer waste pose more challenges?

AS: The challenge with postconsumer- waste tracking is that it is a comingled kind of mess. Unless you're willing to separate it, you're going to have just a lump number. That said, for the most part, people are not tracking individual plate waste, they're tracking aggregate pounds. You see this mainly in institutional environments such
as colleges.

What operators can do to deal with this challenge is collect more qualitative data from service staff as to what they're seeing being thrown away, and then begin to correlate that information with their aggregate numbers.

It's easier in many cases to focus efforts again on waste prevention by dialing into portion sizes and through careful menu engineering.

FE&S: What do you think of the term "zero waste"? What does it mean in the waste-diversion conversation?

AS: The definition of "zero" is very clear to most first graders. Yet, for some reason, we are allowing the term "zero waste" to be used in scenarios where waste is still being generated. For example, some municipalities allow companies and organizations to claim zero waste even if they have only a 90 percent diversion rate and are still sending 10 percent to the landfill. But the fact of the matter is, "zero" means zero. We need to maintain the integrity of the concept of zero because
it is a powerful goal and a motivator. If we claim victory without actually crossing the line, we miss a huge
opportunity.

I'm predicting more intense focus and scrutiny on "zero waste" claims. People are beginning to ask more questions about what total waste prevention is and who is truly accomplishing that.

 

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